Speaking of kirsch…

Drifting off to sleep last night I found myself remembering a little episode from my college days overseas, back when I had more resources and opportunities than sense. That was the year I took advantage of the generous 6-week-long British spring break to go galavanting about Eastern Europe all alone. It was 1986, the wall had yet to come down, and Bulgarian secret police forces did not find 20-year-old American boobs like me at all funny. No one ever told me that of course, with the possible exception of a desk clerk at the American consulate in London, who looking over my set of exotic solo visas asked “are you brave or just plain stupid?”. Yes sir, thank you sir. That was pretty much the reaction of everyone I told about my plans, particularly a Canadian student by the name of Lorne, who, either as a warning or for the sheer fun of it, made me stay up late watching Midnight Express the night before I left.

It was some three weeks later that I found myself aboard an east-bound train out of Budapest, Hungary, heading toward a Romanian city by than name of Cluj in Transylvania, which is a very real place in Northwestern Romania and scary for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with Dracula. I’ll never forget the cast of characters in that train compartment. A middle-aged married couple with their mother, a 50-ish fellow who looked liky a gypsy wearing a dirty old suit with a waistcoat and hat, and a strapping younger fellow in suspenders. All were Hungarian and on their way to visit relatives across the border. A lot of that sort of thing went on then and still goes on, since Hungary and Romania have never quite been able to decide who owns the region of Transylvania. An extraordinarily rich agricultural area, it’s been fought over for centuries. Hungary owned it as late as the Second World War, after which it was given back to Romania for reasons that are still unclear to a lot of people (since Romania was allied with the Nazis). Families living there were famously indifferent to the movement of the invisible borders. Every so often they’d just get a different colored passport in the mail. So what?

We were traveling in the middle of the night for some reason, all gabbing with each other as best we could through a mixture of gestures, bad English and even worse Hungarian. You have no idea how long it takes to tell a dirty joke across a linguistic chasm that broad. The young guy and the gypsy fellow were darned persistent though, and what the hell we had a lot of time to kill. Eventually the food started to come out as it always does in a situation like that. Traveling in that part of the world you learn never to board a train without a quantity of something to eat. A bag of oranges, a stack of chocolate bars or several bottles of beer…something to contribute to the common meal. I can still taste that old lady’s fried chicken, which she’d pounded flat like schnitzel. The booze was next. The married fellow produced a full flask of home-made kirsch, which the compartment crew passed around amongst themselves before giving it to me, presumably because my reaction would be the most entertaining. I didn’t disappoint. I took a deep and manly draught, turned purple and coughed myself inside out, flames licking out my nostrils. It was everything they had hoped for, and everyone was still chuckling as the train slowed down for the border checkpoint.

Well I can tell you that the mood of the compartment became quite a bit more somber then. Everyone sat upright, straightened their clothes and began rummaging through their bags for passports and visas. It was a tense time, since even by east European standards, Romania was a dangerous place. Ruled by a brutal Stalinist dictator by the name of Nikolai Ceausescu, it had the worst human rights record of any European nation at that time. The other east European countries I’d visited had been relatively Westernized by comparison. Going to Romania was like going behind the iron curtain for real, even for the Hungarians. Thus when the armed Romanian troops boarded the train to inspect passports there was no joking, not even any talking. All I remember hearing was the sound of boot heels in the hallway, the flipping of passport pages and the odd mumbling inquiry. In short order an officer appeared to collected our passports while the underlings set about searching our bags for contraband. I remember looking over at the gyspy fellow who had been so relaxed and jocular, his complexion had gone from pink to ashen. He sat stiff and motionless, his eyes vacant, as though a rattlesnake had slithered up his pant leg. The soldiers brought down the bags from the overhead racks one by one, opened them and pawed briefly through their contents. After about ten minutes of fruitless searching, they left us. Our stamped passports were shortly returned and the train continued on its way, much to the relief of all.

The flask came back out, the window was lowered to let air in, and everyone began to talk loudly and laugh. It was a raucous sort of unwinding, and after a few moments the young fellow, the gypsy and the married man who were sitting opposite the rest of us got up from their bench. They turned around and together yanked the bench cushion away fromt he compartment wall, at which point about a dozen large bottles filled with pills came crashing to the floor. Staring in disbelief it suddenly struck me what was going on: drug smuggling. These people were smuggling medicines to their relatives in Romania who either couldn’t afford, or didn’t have access to, pharmaceuticals. It was common practice then, but highly illegal, since drug smuggling was drug smuggling whether you were saving lives or not, and we were all culpable. This time it was my turn to go ashen as I thought back on Midnight Express and realized how close we had all come to being strung up by our ankles in chains in some Transylvanian shithole. I stumbled into the corrider stuck my head out the window and threw up. When I came back, strings of spit dangling from my chin, the compartment erupted in hilarity. The gypsy glanced around grinning, making the international hand gesture for “idiot man-child who can’t hold his liquor”. The whole group was doubled over in laughter at the lightweight. The truth was I had had scarcely anything to drink that night. Those folks had my number though, but good.

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